By Doug Nesbitt and Andrew Stevens
With near unanimous support from the membership, Unifor Local 594 provided the Co-operative Refinery Complex (CRC) with job action notice on December 4, 2019. The employer immediately responded by locking out over 700 workers – from process operators, building trades, lab technicians, to administrative support workers. The battle is over further rollbacks of the pension plan.
For months the CRC had prepared for this moment by establishing a scab camp on property adjacent to the plant in Regina’s north end. A helipad was also set up to help the company bypass picket lines it knew would disrupt the entry of supplies, workers, and fuel trucks needed to carry product to market. And so began what will likely be remembered as an historic labour dispute between North America’s only co-operatively owned oil refinery and a union that, for decades, helped to shape the face of refinery unionism in Canada.
Despite the CRC’s casting of Local 594 as a Toronto-based union in an effort to undermine the union’s credibility in Saskatchewan, 594’s origins are unquestionably local and rooted in the rich history of the province’s co-operative and labour movements.
Building the refinery, forming the union
Drawing on years of collective organizing experience against corporate monopoly power, Saskatchewan farmers launched a co-operative to build an oil refinery in Regina in 1935. The co-operative aimed to produce and deliver affordable oil to farmers and other consumers. It was an ambitious act of radical, democratic self-reliance. It was also a blow against the big oil companies that were consolidating their power during the Great Depression.
After several years of successful operation, the refinery workers unionized with little opposition from the CRC. Two years later, Tommy Douglas and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation were elected to power, ushering in what many call North America’s “first socialist government.” What was it like in Saskatchewan at the time? According to one of the refinery’s union organizers, Neil Reimer, “the movement was so politicized and because the role of co-ops was so important, we had to decide what role the union movement would play. The role of co-ops, socialism, and democracy were all part of it.”
In 1948, the new union earned the moniker “Local 594” of the Oil Workers International Union (OWIU). However, the Regina local was isolated from other oil workers. The ability of the union to organize in Alberta after the 1947 Leduc oil discovery was undermined by the shattering defeat of the 1947-48 California oil workers’ strike. Aided by the new anti-union Taft-Hartley laws, thousands of California oil workers were blacklisted from the industry. The OWIU was nearly destroyed. Union resources to organize in Alberta no longer existed.
Local 594: Heart of the Union in Hard Times
During the 1940s and 1950s, Local 594 became a crucial base of operations for the entire OWIU in Canada. Early organizing efforts were close to home, including the unionization of refinery workers in Saskatoon and Moose Jaw.
By the time the OWIU recovered from the California defeat, the Red Scare was at its height with the Korean War. Across the continent, the unions were in retreat, paralyzed and weakened by the purging of militants, legal attacks like Taft-Hartley and Liberal back-to-work legislation, and mass raiding of “Communist”-led unions. Employers and governments had stopped most of the great advances of the 1930s and 1940s, and tamed some major unions.
Oil worker organizing outside Saskatchewan got underway in less than ideal circumstances, with Local 594 members leading the charge. In Edmonton, Neil Reimer spearheaded the organizing drive at the British-American (now Gulf) refinery. Despite securing a two-thirds majority of card-signers, Premier Ernest Manning intervened on behalf of Big Oil, changing the labour laws to require a union vote instead of union recognition with majority card-signing. The law provided BA the time it needed to launch a massive campaign of intimidation, aided by Manning’s anti-union red-baiting propaganda. The union was defeated in 1951 by only ten votes.
In Quebec, Premier Maurice Duplessis cracked down on the union when it organized the Montreal Copper Refinery. A few years later in 1955, Duplessis banned the union from the province because the executive, with strong representation from Local 594, refused to sign an anti-communist pledge. Despite these defeats, smaller shops and other refineries were organized, including the Husky refinery in Lloydminster.
Union Independence and Tommy Douglas
Attacked as Reds by Manning and Duplessis, Saskatchewan’s oil workers weren’t just loyalists to the CCF government of Tommy Douglas.
In the early 1950s, Saskatchewan Power workers, like other Crown Corporation workers, bargained directly with Tommy Douglas’s cabinet. When they sought a strike mandate to press their demands in bargaining, they were denied by the CCF-dominated Canadian Congress of Labour (precursor to CLC).
Looking around for a feisty, independent union, SaskPower workers joined the OWIU which operated independently of the CCL. In another round of bargaining, Tommy Douglas and the CCF cabinet again refused to meet the demands of SaskPower workers. Now SaskPower workers voted in favour of strike action. Douglas responded by threatening strikebreaking legislation and revoking union certification.
Saskatchewan’s oil workers were having none of it. Unionized refinery workers across Saskatchewan voted in favour of a general sympathy strike against any union-busting legislation. Neil Reimer, now Canadian president of the OWIU, threatened to personally campaign to defeat prominent CCFer and Steelworkers Canadian president Charles Millard in an upcoming Ontario election. Douglas backed down, and a deal was hammered out.
The power of the Co-op refinery workers was instrumental in asserting workers’ rights against a “pro-labour” government.
Building The Union
By the late 1950s, the organizing skills and financial resources provided by the CRC workers and other Saskatchewan locals had laid the foundations for big unionization victories at Polymer in Sarnia, and the Irving Refinery in Saint John. Through mergers, the OWIU became the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW). The union had grown from 2,000 members in 1954 to 20,000 in 1960.
In 1960, the CRC also celebrated 25 years of operation. An incredible 40,000 people took part in the festivities. Regina’s population was only 110,000 at the time.
With thousands of new members and a hard-won reputation as intelligent fighters for working-class interests, OCAW began preparations to fight for national pattern bargaining across Canada’s refineries.
Building upon their shopfloor and community organizing skills, the union also invited worker representatives from twenty-one “works councils” (aka: company unions) to participate in developing and coordinating joint bargaining demands. This subversive strategy had its dangers, but it also helped stoke independent action among non-union refinery workers and counter-acted the original purpose of the company unions. Despite legally representing a third of refinery workers in the country, the union was now leading a majority of refinery workers in pushing a common set of demands across union and non-union facilities.
Burn, Irving, Burn!
The battle for national pattern bargaining was fought over three major strikes between 1963 and 1969. In 1963, New Brunswick’s robber baron K.C. Irving cried poor and launched a vicious assault on the new union at the Saint John refinery. The 150 refinery workers were simply demanding the prevailing wage rate at other refineries.
The newspapers, courts and police were used mercilessly against the strikers. Picket lines were limited by judges, secondary pickets banned, and arrests common. Refinery workers responded by burning K.C. Irving in effigy.
The scales tipped in the favour of the refinery workers as boycotts of Irving gas stations spread across New Brunswick and Quebec Teamsters launched “hot oil” sympathy strikes. Strikers were helped by fundraising efforts across the country.
After a gruelling seven months, the strike was won. The oil workers had learned valuable lessons about the importance of coordinating and combining solidarity actions, including sympathy strikes and aggressive public consumer boycotts.
The miserly Irving was in some sense an outlier because wages were so low. Oil companies generally paid higher wages to prevent unionization. Reimer and the union membership knew national pattern bargaining couldn’t be won by pushing on wages. The wealthy oil companies had a long history of raising wages to derail union goals. Leading on wages would also limit the scope and strength of public support. National pattern bargaining would require leading on different demands. Health and safety and protections from automation were the obvious “non-wage” demands.
Two Black Eyes for Big Oil
Following the lessons of the Irving strike, the big 1965 push for national pattern bargaining focused on winning major gains in health and safety. Refinery workers prepared for long strikes, knowing the refinery management could hold out for weeks. However, they also knew that production would eventually collapse due to supervisor exhaustion and significant breakdowns that couldn’t be easily fixed.
British-American was selected as the pattern-setting employer, and the first refinery strike started at the BA refinery in Saskatoon alongside a big consumer boycott campaign. The strike also started in the fall, to strengthen union leverage over the cold winter months. As pressure mounted, the companies and governments retaliated with injunctions.
Two months into the strike, the union concluded that a complete shut-down of the west coast was required. The decisive battleground became British Columbia where 700 striking refinery workers had the BC labour movement lining up behind them. First, a “hot oil” edict was issued by the BC Federation of Labour. Then, a province-wide general strike of 150,000 workers was set for November 24. Twelve hours before the strike deadline, BC’s Social Credit Premier W.A.C. Bennett proposed a settlement which resulted in the companies agreeing to a series of automation and layoff-related demands. The strike was over. National pattern bargaining was achieved.
Four years later, Big Oil fought back to break up national pattern bargaining into five regional contracts across the country. A long strike erupted again in 1969, rolling out across the country but centred on the prairies and BC.
Once more, the threat of a general strike in British Columbia was decisive in achieving union victory. The employer’s attacks included injunctions, arrests, and even murder.
James Harvey, a Vancouver oil worker of 16 years and father of eight, was crushed under the truck of a strikebreaker. Harvey’s death led to the border crossings being blockaded by trade unionists, and waves of sympathy strikes, including 70,000 members of the Building Trades Council. The momentum towards a general strike became real, and the government quickly enacted compulsory arbitration. The strike was over, and national pattern bargaining was safe, for now.
Once again, the refinery workers advanced non-wage issues during the 1969 strike. In addition to improving health and safety, they won path-breaking protections against rapidly-advancing automation.
Union Blueprint for a Green Future
Born of the independent, democratic and collective principles of Saskatchewan’s labour, socialist and co-operative movements, the oil workers union was not content to the let Big Oil dictate Canada’s energy policies. In the 1960s, the union educated its members and campaigned against the US-led corporate takeover of Canadian oil companies. Without an independent oil sector, argued the union, energy policy would be controlled by Big Oil whose only interests were extracting profits.
The union’s concerns evolved quickly after the great 1973 oil shock when prices spiked around the world and sent the global economy into crisis. The crisis was compounded by new advanced refineries coming online at the same time. These new refineries were built with the massive amounts of capital accrued during an unprecedented 15-year boom.
The federal government responded to the crisis by forming PetroCanada in 1975, two years after Saskatchewan spearheaded the formation of publicly-owned SaskOil. In Alberta, the response took the form of the Heritage Fund which would accrue wealth for through royalties. PetroCanada, SaskOil, and the Heritage Fund were all designed to allow elected governments to exert more control over energy policies and oil profits, especially after the 1973 oil crisis. Each experiment was an affront to Big Oil.
The union pushed further than all these three government experiments in energy policy. By the late 1970s it had developed its own National Energy Policy which was ratified at its 1980 convention. The policy was imprinted with the democratic, cooperative and socialistic spirit of the Co-op Refinery’s founding principles.
First, it called for energy self-sufficiency through conservation and a suspension of oil and gas imports and exports. This was critical to achieving the goal of protecting the environment for future generations and respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples. These goals were to be achieved through maximizing public ownership of the energy industry and driving out Big Oil through the expansion and vertical integration of PetroCanada. Profits would be turned towards several initiatives, including investment in a low-cost transportation strategy, and integration of energy policy with broader social and economic goals, such as universal healthcare, education and other public services.
But the union’s National Energy Policy did not stop there. It articulated a plan for a green transition which advocated conservation programs and massive investment in solar, wind and bio-mass energy research and development. Oil workers would be protected with a fully-funded job transition program and safety net.
In favouring conservation programs, the union explicitly rejected “market-based” pricing mechanisms – like a carbon tax – because it viewed such schemes as unfairly hurting ordinary working-class people..
As the union was developing these new policies, it also became a fully-independent union from OCAW in an amicable split respecting the right to Canadian union autonomy. The new union, the Energy and Chemical Workers Union (ECWU) would form in 1979. It would merge with other unions in 1992 to form the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union. Another merger led the CEP into Unifor in 2013. Local 594 at the CRC is now Unifor Local 594.
Big Oil’s Revenge
What happened to these union policies and ideas? The short answer is Big Oil took advantage of the 1981-82 recession and launched a sustained multi-decade offensive against the public ownership, unions, environmental concerns, and Indigenous peoples. Just as the union was developing its National Energy Policy, Big Oil was confirming the science of human-made climate change…and then covering it up.
Whereas governments and unions set the agenda after the 1973 oil shock, Big Oil seized the initiative amidst the chaos and brutality of the 1981-82 recession. Big Oil succeeded in leading the Trudeau and then Mulroney in new energy policy directions. The job losses and refinery closures during the recession sent justifiable fear and concern through the ranks of the union membership, and with Big Oil’s offensive, the union was brought to heel, causing a full-scale retreat from its farsighted National Energy Policy.
With fears of job losses permeating the union, Big Oil concentrated its fire on destroying PetroCanada as an instrument of government policy. When Trudeau’s response to economic stagnation was the National Energy Program’s sharing of Albertan oil wealth across Canada, the Lougheed government and Big Oil led the charge against the NEP, the terms of the five-year Alberta-Canada feedstock agreement, and other price and industry regulations.
The NEP was a political disaster for the Liberals, so Trudeau launched a new task force to study oil policy. Big Oil representatives dominated the task force. By 1984, on the eve of Mulroney’s election, the task force successfully proposed a deregulation of oil prices, and the rolling back of government intervention. Given the massive job losses and wave of refinery closures, the union leadership accepted the task force’s proposals.
Within a year of Mulroney taking office, PetroCanada’s original role as a public policy instrument was severely curtailed and by 1991, PetroCanada was privatized. Big Oil was back in charge with governments and even the union accepting corporate leadership in the oil sector.
Big Oil’s Scorched Earth Policies
Like other major employers during the 1980s, Big Oil was using the recession to roll back the post-war gains of labour. These roll backs were sold to the public as necessary and unions were vilified, but a deeper, more strategic agenda was at play.
After the establishment of PetroCanada, Big Oil began pushing back on multiple fronts. This included demands for significant rollbacks of Unemployment Insurance to allow a “flexible” labour market among construction workers. They saw the robust UI program as a disincentive for workers to travel for jobs, allowing Albertan construction workers to command good wages in the large oil industry projects. Rather than gutting UI, Big Oil’s goals of destroying the power of Alberta’s building trades was achieved in 1983 with the government-assisted 24-hour lockout and double-breasting scheme.
One of the biggest defeats came at the Saint John Irving Refinery. In 1994, Irving sparked a strike demanding wage cuts, more hours without overtime pay, greater management power over training and work tasks, and elimination of “last hired, first fired” job security. Irving wanted a return to the status quo before the 1963-64 strike.
For 27 months, the union fought valiantly against Irving’s total control of the newspapers and loyalty of the two major parties. The union, Local 691, initiated a province-wide boycott of Irving gas stations but also facing injunctions limiting pickets to only eight people at the refinery. Some union members even scabbed. After 27 months, a deal was reached. The entire leadership of Local 691 was dismissed from their jobs. Some 37 of 150 remaining strikers were effectively blacklisted and lost their jobs.
Local 594 and the Fight for the Future
The paradox of refinery workers in Canada is that the relatively high wages which the oil companies afford are precisely the way the unions are kept out. But the union’s exceptional organizers emerging out of Local 594 helped overcome these odds and build the union through the difficult 1950s against incredible foes like Manning and Duplessis, and erstwhile friends like Tommy Douglas.
In the 1960s, these same seasoned union organizers led an even greater army of workers in winning historic health and safety rights and protection from automation. The two big strikes of 1965 and 1969 brought Big Oil to heel by building sympathy strikes, secondary picketing, hot oil edicts, and broad public boycotts. Union blood was spilled to secure national pattern bargaining against Big Oil.
Not content to let Big Oil dictate energy policy, the ideas of socialism, cooperatives, unionism and democracy that were present in the CRC’s founding, evolved in the union’s inspiring National Energy Policy.
While this incredible history has been largely lost through Big Oil’s insidious and relentless propaganda, we find ourselves once again reinventing the very same ideas that oil workers themselves developed in the 1970s: a green conversion of the energy system, green jobs and transition protections for oil workers, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, conservation and environmental stewardship, and public democratic ownership against climate-denying, union-busting, profit-seeking corporate power.
Now, 25 years after the Saint John strike, even Local 594 is fighting for its life, locked out by the CRC management who have completely abandoned co-operative principles in favour of a corporatized trashing of worker pensions in a drive to weaken the union. With police-protected scabbing operations and a campaign of disinformation and lies, 800 refinery workers are fighting to uphold the very principles that gave birth to both the union and co-operative movement.
The future is unwritten, and this lost history can be recovered. We will need it to win at the Co-op Refinery and to win a new world.